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Last Updated on March 7, 2022 by Randy Withers, LCMHC
Suicide is death caused by self-directed injurious behavior with intent to die as a result of the behavior. It’s the second leading cause of death among individuals between the ages of 10 and 34. It’s the fourth leading cause of death among individuals ages 35 to 54.
It is a silent epidemic that kills more than 47,000 men, women, and children every year. It does not discriminate. It does not play favorites. Old or young. Black or white. Gay or straight. Rich or poor. Nobody is immune.
In the United States, suicide happens with startling regularity. It is a public health crisis that nobody wants to discuss, admit, or do anything to stop.
Most troubling of all, the epidemic of suicide in the United States is getting worse.
The number of people who die by their own hand every year is equivalent to the number of people who overdose on prescription pain killers. And while drug overdoses are decreasing, suicides increased by more than 10% from 2014 to 2017.
Press coverage or public debate about the matter does not exist. No lawsuits, no marches, no congressional hearings. Just silence.
It’s as if tens of thousands of Americans simply vanish every year.
An Overview of Suicide in The United States
The statistics are sobering.
On average, 129 Americans die from suicide every day. That’s one death by suicide every 12 minutes. It’s the tenth leading cause of death in the United States. More than twice as many people die from suicide than by homicide.
Another 1.4 million attempt suicide every year.
Worldwide, suicide accounts for 800,000 deaths each year; that’s one death every 40 seconds. It is the second-leading cause of death for persons between the age of 15-24.
Who Is Most at Risk for Suicide in the United States?
In 2017, more than 47,000 people died by suicide. More people died from suicide in the United States than from methamphetamine, cocaine, and heroin overdoses.
Research by The Centers for Disease Control shows the scope of the problem. While nobody is safe from the effects of suicide, some Americans are at greater risk than others.
- Men are 3.5 times more likely to kill themselves than women.
- More than 90% of those who completed suicide had a diagnosable mental illness at the time of their death.
- 37 million Americans struggle with Major Depressive Disorder every year. A strong correlation exists between clinical depression and suicide.
- Veterans are 1.5 times more likely to complete suicide than non-veterans.
Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the United States, but you never hear about it on the news unless it’s a celebrity.
Among minority groups in America, suicide rates are especially alarming.
Consider the following:
Lesbian, gay, and bisexual kids are 3 times more likely to attempt suicide at some point in their lives.
Serious suicide attempts are 4 times more likely among LGBTQ youth than other young people.
- African American, Latino, Native American, and Asian American people who are lesbian, gay, or bisexual attempt suicide at especially high rates.
- 41% of trans adults said they had attempted suicide, in one study. The same study found that 61% of trans people who were victims of physical assault had attempted suicide.
- Lesbian, gay, and bisexual young people who come from families that do not accept them are 8 times more likely to attempt suicide than those whose families accept them.
- Each time an LGBTQ person is a victim of physical or verbal harassment or abuse, they become 2.5 times more likely to hurt themselves.
- Suicide affects men, women, and children. It is most likely to affect white males, Native Americans, and Alaskans, but children as young as 10 have died from suicide in the United States.
Suicide is a national epidemic that disproportionally affects many minorities and marginalized groups in the United States.
What is the Cost of Suicide in the United States?
Every year, suicide and suicide attempts cost Americans between 69 and 93.5 billion dollars. In fact, the average cost of just one suicide is estimated to be more than 1.3 million dollars. Medical expenses, emergency services, and law enforcement expenditures account for 3% of that cost. The rest stems from a lifetime of lost productivity.
Collectively, some 950,000 years of life are lost annually to this scourge.
This is to say nothing of the social, psychological, and emotional toll that suicide takes from family, friends, and loved ones.
Losing a loved one is traumatic enough when it from disease, old age, or accidental death. Grief and bereavement are painful and complex processes.
But it’s worse for those who have lost a loved one to suicide.
People get confused and angry. They get accusatory and defensive. They feel betrayed and abandoned.
As a result, suicide tends to rip apart families. It ransacks marriages and friendships as well due to the myriad ways that people react to the death of a loved one in this manner.
Suicides affect entire communities, schools, and religious organizations. It affects the military. It affects businesses and government institutions. It affects everything and every one of us.
It’s impossible to calculate Many of the long-term losses incurred by suicide. Relationships that never happened. Children who were never born. Friendships that were never forged. Innovation never imagined. Art never created.
The cost of suicide in the United States is staggering.
How Do People Complete Suicide in the United States?
More than half of all suicides in the United States involve a firearm. Adults can buy handguns, shotguns, and rifles with relative ease.
For the suicidal, access to firearms is a grave threat. Sellers run background checks, but federal law only restricts sales under two conditions:
- involuntary commitment to a psychiatric hospital;
- declared mentally incompetent by a court or government body.
Those two criteria only prevent a tiny fraction from purchasing a firearm.
In 2017, 39,773 people died as a result of firearms. Homicides and accidental death account for less than half that number. Suicide accounts for a shocking 24,000 of those deaths.
Mass shootings have sparked debate and protests about gun rights and access to weapons.
But in the United States, you are far more likely to die from suicide than in a mass shooting, a terrorist attack, or even from homicide.
And yes, we know that when gun ownership rates decline, so do the number of suicides.
Men, of course, are more likely to use a firearm to complete suicide.
Suffocation (such as hanging) is also quite common, accounting for more than a quarter of all suicides each year.
People poison themselves as well, though it is not as common as firearm deaths or hanging. It accounts for almost 14% of all suicides in the United States.
About 8% of suicides result from other means, such as cutting and falls.
It’s not clear how many drug overdoses in the United States are intentional acts of suicide. We can assume it is a sizable percentage.
In 2017, 70,000 people died from opioid and heroin overdoses. It’s foolish to think that all were accidental.
Why Do People Complete Suicide in the United States?
People decide to complete suicide for myriad reasons.
For many, it’s due to a pervasive mental disorder or terminal illnesses. Traumatic experiences are also a big reason why people choose to complete suicide.
Suicide is a grave concern for the 37 million diagnosed with clinical depression every year. Depression is exhausting. It fills your head with doubt and self-loathing and tries to convince you that death is the only solution. It lies, but too many end up believing it.
Others die from suicide due to failed relationships, job loss, and financial devastation. Among children, bullying in its many forms is a factor.
We will never know the exact reason why people decide to end their lives. Many never explain their rationale. So many suicides are impulsive that we will never know the real reason why so many choose to end their own lives.
But there are indeed people who fall into high-risk categories:
- Prior suicide attempts
- Major Depression and other mental health disorders
- Substance Abuse Disorders and Addiction
- Family history of a mental health or substance abuse disorder
- Family history of suicide
- Family violence, including domestic violence and physical or sexual abuse
- Access to firearms in the home
- Being in prison or jail
- Exposure to others’ suicidal behavior, such as a family member, peer, or media figure
- Medical illness
- Being between the ages of 15 and 24 years or over age 60
What Steps Are Being Taken to Reduce the Epidemic of Suicide in the United States?
The response to the epidemic of suicide has been slow. The CDC established the National Violent Death Reporting System in 2002, but it didn’t include data about suicide until 2018. This is obscene, given that suicide has been a huge problem for decades.
The United States has also been slow to adopt a national suicide prevention strategy. It wasn’t until 2010 that the National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention began to advance a national strategy for suicide prevention.
That strategy, implemented in 2012, outlined goals for reducing deaths by suicide. But suicide rates continue to climb.
The response by the United States has been no response at all.
Suicide Prevention and Screening
In 2017, Miller, et al. published a study about suicide screenings and early interventions performed in emergency rooms. They found that these interventions resulted in 30% fewer suicides.
As a result, mental health professionals and physicians have begun to adopt recommendations published by the National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention.
In outpatient behavioral health settings, those recommendations include the following 5 steps:
- Assessing patients for suicide risk at intake;
- Completing a safety plan with the patient who is at increased risk;
- Giving patients information on telephone crisis lines and other forms of 24/7 support;
- Taking steps to reduce access to lethal means such as firearms and knives;
- Reassessing risk and reviewing or updating the safety plan at each visit.
A key message, experts say, is that there is genuine hope for people considering suicide.
“Suicide is about despair, and the only cure for despair is hope,” says Joel Dvoskin, Ph.D. a clinical and forensic psychologist who has worked with jails to implement suicide prevention practices. “Psychologists can prevent suicide by helping people to regain hope. If we’re not about that, we should get out of the business.”
Screenings reduce suicide rates, but to further reduce the body count we need a far more aggressive program. Remember – the total number of suicides increases every year.
We need more prevention, education, public awareness, and treatment, particularly for those in high-risk categories.
Do You Struggle with Thoughts of Suicide?
If you struggle with thoughts of suicide, the single best thing you can do is talk to someone who cares. Support from professional counselors and therapists is a crucial tool as well. Lean on family and friends for comfort and care. Talk to them. Let them help you.
Regardless of who is part of your support system, the worst thing you can do is keep those thoughts to yourself. Suicidal thoughts are analogous to a malfunctioning computer. You can’t trust them, no matter how compelling they seem to be.
Talking about suicide does not make people suicidal. The exact opposite is true. If you have thoughts of suicide, talk to someone. It’s one of the best things you can do.
People can and do get better. Suicidal thoughts can and do go away. People can and do overcome mental illness and substance use disorders. People can and do remove themselves from toxic relationships, homes, and situations.
People can and do live a life free from suicidal thoughts.
Reach out to your supports. Let them help you. Don’t be a statistic. Life is precious and so are you. Don’t ever forget that.
Several organizations in the United States promote suicide awareness and prevention. But we still need much more to combat this public health nightmare.
We need more prevention programs and education in schools.
We need easier access to social services.
We need national campaigns to reduce stigma.
And we need more funding to hire and keep counselors who treat people who suffer from suicidal ideation and overt suicidality.
Suicide rates in the United States are alarming. They must be treated as a public health hazard and a national emergency.
This is a fixable problem. In the 90’s, Japan recognized that their levels of suicide were out of control. It implemented awareness campaigns and increased access to services. The result was a 30% decrease in suicides.
The United States can do that as well. Crisis lines and chat services are an important step. But they are only the first of several much-needed suicide prevention programs.
If you are in crisis, you can go here for a list of emergency services in your area.
If you feel like your life is in danger, stop reading this immediately and call emergency services.
Here is a list of emergency numbers by country:
- In the United States and Canada, the number is 911;
- In the United Kingdom it’s 999;
- In Europe and in India it is 112;
- Australia is 000;
- In New Zealand, you dial 111;
- In China, dial 110 for the police and 120 for an ambulance;
- In Hong Kong you dial 999;
- National Suicide Prevention Lifeline
- Lifeline Chat
- American Foundation for Suicide Prevention
- Veterans Crisis Line
- The TREVOR Project (Support for LGBTQ Community)
- Downloadable Safety Plans. Here and Here.
- By the numbers: An alarming rise in suicide
- Suicide Facts & Figures: United States 2019
- Suicide Statistics
- What the data says about gun deaths in the U.S.
- How do laws prevent mentally ill people from buying guns?
- Suicide Prevention Resource
- Suicide in America: Frequently Asked Questions
- List of states and territories of the United States by population
- Suicide Prevention Resource Center – Cost of Suicide
- These are all the emergency services numbers you need when you go abroad
- Recommended Standard Care for People with Suicide Risk: Making Health Care Suicide Safe
- Worrying trends in U.S. suicide rates
- Suicide Mortality in the United States, 1999-2017 (CDC)
- Suicide Prevention in an Emergency Department Population
- Speaking Up About Suicide: Awareness and Prevention Can Save Many Lives